My co-blogger Doug is in Albania. "I am still in Albania," he says. And to think, I used to joke with him about that possibility. Thus, in Doug's honor, let me post an excerpt from Diplomatic Bags, the memoirs of the Italian diplomat Pietro Quaroni. Some background: Quaroni was stationed in Albania during the interwar years, at a time when Albania was a cockpit for Yugoslav, Greek, British, and Italian (i.e. Mussolini's) influence, under the peculiar rule of King Zog. As the saying goes, Zog did not so much rule as reign lightly. Much of the country still remained under traditional Albanian law, the unwritten code sometimes known as the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. One peculiarity of the Kanun is that it did not rely on state structures for enforcement, much like the early medieval Iceland so beloved by modern American libertarian theorists. In the same way, Albania under the Kanun could be a remarkably violent place, much as the Icelandic sagas describe (and said theorists ignore). The Kanun has fascinated me for a long time, and I'm pleased as punch that I finally have an excuse to blog about it. So here's Quaroni on how this modern stateless law code operated:
On the city boundary where Cavaja Street begins, the ground rises and some way up the hill a barracks was being built. Perhaps this was why the road here was better maintained (in winter, most of Tirana became a sea of mud); it was a part of the town to which we often came for an afternoon walk. During one of these, my wife saw a peculiar object lying in a ditch at the side of the road; it proved to be a human corpse, a man half-immersed in a pool of water. This was a relatively busy street, and we were surprised that no one paid any attention to it. When we returned the following day, it was still there, in exactly the same position. The local people were unable to explain what had happened; much gesticulation and a flood of Albanian dialect told us nothing. The mystery was solved that evening by Colonel Sereggi, the King's ADC. 'He must have been killed in a vendetta,' he explained. 'Only members of his family are allowed to bury him. If anyone else touches the body, that person becomes immediately involved in the vendetta with the family who killed him. In the same way, if he had only been wounded, only members of his family could have tended him.' Such was our initiation into that strange and complex institution known in Albania as the vendetta.Actually, as in Italy, such things were known as matters of blood: gjak.
Since the days of the ancient Turkish empire the honesty of the Albanians has been proverbial. A woman could, it is said, cross the length and breadth of the land loaded with gold and jewelry, and no-one would life a finger against her. So honest are they that, again according to tradition, it is unnecessary to close the front door at night. After nearly three years in Albania, I could confirm some of this from personal experience.
Only in the bigger towns, where attempts were being made to introduce the benefits of Western civilization, were these sterling qualities disappearing. However, honest as an Albanian may be in some matters, he has an extremely quick finger on the trigger, particularly if his family is involved in a vendetta. Every village has its vendetta. We in Italy are sensibly taught as children that the best way of dealing with a vendetta is to forget it, to pardon our adversary.I really wonder what Leonardo Sciascia would have said to this. Anyway.
But in Albania the vendetta is deeply rooted in tradition, governed by a code of rules, known as the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. To flout this is considered a heinous crime, and the transgressor is immediately regarded as an assassin. I doubt whether any Albanian, even among the gendarmes or magistrates, was really familiar with the directives of the new penal code [of King Zog -- CY]; but they certainly knew everything about the rules of the vendetta as a form of private justice, regarded as inevitable and indeed necessary in a country where, at least under Ottoman domination, State justice hardly existed. For centuries the vendetta has been an essential part of the social fabric, of family pride, respect for the rights of others, honour, honesty, etc. Among the many new measures was Zog's attempt at moderating, if not altogether abolishing, the vendetta. Together with malaria, it was said to be the principal cause of the falling birthrate. Zog tried to persuade his subjects to use his new penal code, with its magistrates, judges, and police force. He was not very successful. The policemen who arrested the transgressors, as well as the judges who sentenced them, were Albanians, some no doubt victims or heroes of vendettas themselves. The churches, in particular the Catholic Church, had a little more success; but only because they did not try to abolish the vendetta, but simply to limit its violence. As in mediaeval times, the Albanian bishops would occasionally proclaim 'God's truce', and vendettas were forbidden on days of church festivals -- particularly at the Feast of the Madonna of Good Cheer, when the mountain tribes, Musselmen as well as Catholics, assembled in the little church at the gates of Scutari [Shkodr -- CY]. The vendetta flourished of course in the mountains, where the tribes were still attached to their old habits and ceremonial.Next: more on the Icelandic connection.